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After 5 months, City Council advances a plan to use city property to aid Pittsburgh's homeless

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh City Council is poised to move forward with a plan to identify city properties where emergency shelters and temporary housing can be built for homeless residents.

Council on Wednesday preliminarily approved a bill that would direct Mayor Ed Gainey’s administration to set aside dozens of parcels of city-owned land to be designated for homelessness services. The measure also calls on the city to “provide for policies and programs to address the lack of affordable housing, and their consequent contribution to chronic homelessness.”

Council President Theresa Kail-Smith and Councilor Deb Gross first introduced the bill in August after tent camps began to grow in neighborhoods across the city. The encampments received increased media attention after residents began complaining about litter and alleged drug use.

The bill was put on pause for months while council members formed a committee to study homelessness and began exploring strategies to employ in Pittsburgh. That committee has been led by Councilor Anthony Coghill, who said Wednesday’s bill was a “starting point” for city leaders.

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The measure was amended during Wednesday’s meeting to include language about so-called “transitional housing,” where people would be able to stay for a longer period of time and receive supportive services while they seek permanent accommodations. Councilor Deb Gross said the change came as a result of conversations with the Gainey administration.

“The gap in our social safety net in the city is in the transitional housing,” Gross said. “We have people just in tents and just in overnight shelters,” she said, noting a short supply of those resources, as well.

Council has also sought to increase the availability of affordable rental housing by directing the city to evaluate the benefits of accessory dwelling units — small, self-contained homes built on or near existing homes.

The bill was further amended Wednesday to increase the number of city properties to be designated for homelessness services to a total of 60 parcels. An earlier version called for 40 parcels. The additional 20 parcels will be designated for transitional housing and multi-unit, dorm-style buildings.

The measure before council would simply direct the city to identify the properties and begin developing programs and resources for the city’s homeless. Coghill noted further legislation could be forthcoming that would formalize how the city uses the properties.

Coghill told WESA transitional housing will likely become a key piece of how the city seeks to address an uptick in homelessness with more permanent measures. He said emergency shelters are “great,” but added “we feel, really, for people to transition back into society and get a job and be able to pay their rent, they need a place of their own.”

But, he cautioned, no idea is off the table as council continues to explore resources for homeless residents. He said the city is considering a “plethora” of angles that could include expanding drop-in centers or building another facility similar to Second Avenue Commons.

Coghill argued the five-story facility that opened in late November was sorely needed but has been at maximum capacity from nearly the moment it opened.

“We saw how quickly Second Avenue Commons filled up. So, we know there's going to be a need for additional [resources], whether it be drop-in centers or transitional housing.”

The legislation received broad support among council members. During Wednesday’s meeting, Councilor Erika Strassburger cautioned new shelters should still be part of the city’s strategy, “but I truly think that the next… target should be transitional housing.

"So, I'm glad that this bill now incorporates that.”

The bill does not lay out a timeframe for how soon the properties must be designated but says a time would be determined “from the final enactment of this resolution.”

Council could pass the measure as soon as next week.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.